When it comes to offensive areas of improvement for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2017, the tight end spot may not be the first area that comes to mind for most fans.
However, Travis Kelce and company must take a step forward in Kansas City’s lagging red zone attack if the Chiefs’ offense hopes to reach the next level.
Kansas City was the seventh worst red zone offense in 2016, converting touchdowns on only 47 percent of trips inside the 20-yard line. This did not hold the Chiefs back much in the overall points category, finishing 13th overall in the NFL, but that’s in large part due to special teams scores, pick-sixes and defensive takeaways leading to great offensive field position.
While Kansas City hopes those areas continue to produce in 2017, adding a more potent red zone attack would drastically increase the team’s margin of error against top shelf competition like the Patriots and Steelers.
Unless wide receiver Chris Conley takes a huge step forward in 2017 or Kareem Hunt becomes the next Jamaal Charles, it might be solely on the back of quarterback Alex Smith and the tight end group to really improve upon the attack.
The good news for Chiefs fans is that Kelce, Demetrius Harris, Ross Travis and Gavin Escobar all have the potential to grow into weapons inside the red zone that helps take the offense to a new level.
Kelce is clearly in a league of his own among the group, with the All-Pro target entering his fourth full regular season following a career year. No tight end hauled in more yards than Kelce with 1,125, he finished second in catches by just one and ranked fourth overall in targets.
Still, despite having six games with more than 100 receiving yards, Kelce finished tied for the 12th most touchdowns amongst tight ends. For all of Kelce’s ability between the 20s, whether he and Smith can finish the deal and end drives with signature touchdown dance celebrations will be one of the biggest factors to watch in 2017.
The Chiefs would be crippled if Kelce were to ever go down with an injury for an extended period, but the options behind him at least have potential to serve as competent weapons alongside him in multiple tight end sets.
The 6’7" Harris has the most experience in the Andy Reid offense, but the former basketball player has yet to consistently produce in his first three years as a Chief. Two touchdowns in two years is not an eye-popping stat line, but it’s telling that Reid and Smith trusted him in big spots. Harris caught the game tying 2-point conversion end Denver to end the 4th quarter, along with the game tying 2-point conversion in the playoffs against Pittsburgh, only to get called back.
Harris’ hands have not been absolutely reliable, catching only 17 of 31 targets in 2017, but he’s shown the ability to make both tough catches and pressure packed grabs, and if given more of an opportunity, could really take a step forward in 2017. Harris does already have two preseason touchdowns in 2017.
Three tight end sets have been a favorite set for Reid to roll out since arriving in KC, and now Gavin Escobar and Ross Travis are set to battle it out for reps in 2017.
Travis played in six games for Kansas City last year, while Escobar started seven games over four years in Dallas. Both measure up to 6’6, with Escobar bringing in eight touchdowns in the past four years. There’s no clear front-runner for the third spot, but whoever does emerge could provide a surprising boost in the red zone if Smith utilizes their daunting size.
Smith set a career high in passing yards for 2017, but his fifth worst season in the touchdown category. The tight ends are not likely to add many more yards outside of Kelce and Harris’ combined 1,248 yards, but they are the most likely candidates to help Smith increase his lowest touchdown output since arriving in Kansas City.
If Smith and the tight ends can get on the same page and utilize their size inside the 20, not only will their red zone ranking easily climb out of the NFL’s basement, but the team’s offensive and overall success will likely reach an all new high.
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